Out of Sight, Out of Mind
Interviews that feature people looking right into the camera—a technique known in theatre as direct address—can be engaging and powerful. Everyone in the film seems to be confiding in us directly instead of looking off-axis at the producer. The distance between us and what we see on screen seems to shrink somehow. We feel a more intimate connection, because this sort of interview draws us in and offers a first-person perspective on events.
Unfortunately, this kind of intimacy can be difficult to achieve in interviews because most people just aren’t comfortable locking their focus onto a camera lens and keeping it there. Talking to a camera instead of a person is at best artificial, distracting, and impersonal. At worst, it is alien, unnerving, even intimidating. So what can you do to get guaranteed eye contact and greater on-screen intimacy? Find the right tool for the job.
Smoke and Mirrors
I’ve been using an EyeDirect Focusing Device (specifically the Mark II) on several recent productions, and this little tool seems to solve the direct address problem quite well. A mirror box fits over the camera lens and allows the person you’re interviewing to see your image instead of the lens itself. Because the person is now talking to (the reflected image of) a real person, they feel much more at ease—even though they are still speaking directly into the lens. The person being interviewed doesn’t see the lens because the interviewer’s reflection obscures it. Steve McWilliams, the inventor of the device, puts it this way:
I can guarantee a ten-month-old baby, celebrity or camera-shy-teen will look directly into the camera, without undo stress. I just say... "Look at me," and we instantly engage in direct eye contact while they are looking into the camera lens.
Steve McWilliams, EyeDirect
Multiple Configurations and Options
At EditLab I tend to have full crews on almost all of our turnkey productions. But on personal projects I often work as a shooter/director either alone or with one support person at most. On these kinds of projects I’ve been using the EyeDirect to conduct interviews while simultaneously running my Canon C300. It’s meant that I can still stay on top of focus, framing, and audio without losing the intimate connection with the person I’m interviewing. Our eyes stay focused on each other the whole time through the mirror system.
But I want to point out that you don’t necessarily have to conduct the interviews and operate the camera yourself to use EyeDirect. It works just fine in a two-person configuration, too, such as a typical producer/camera operator scenario. In that case the mirror adjusts enough to show the interviewer’s reflection—not that of the camera operator.
I use my device a bit differently than you’ll see on the official EyeDirect web site. They’re showing photos with a small riser attachment underneath the C300 body to give it enough height to center it on the mirror box (which is height adjustable). For speed of set up, I forego using the riser and just mount the C300 to the EyeDirect sled with one of my standard low-profile quick-release plates. This configuration works perfectly well with my Zeiss cine-mod prime lenses and lets me set up and break down more quickly.
Word to the wise… If you’re new to the EyeDirect, you’ll want to allocate a decent amount of time the first time you configure it for use with your particular camera and lenses. The EyeDirect can be adjusted in numerous ways to accommodate different equipment—and that’s a nice feature. But you should expect some trial and error as you’re building out your camera on their sled as you configure it for an optimum setup.
In the Line of Fire
If having your subjects looking right into the lens barrel isn’t your cup of tea, you can adjust the angle of the mirror enough to have your talent looking slightly off-angle to the lens if you prefer. Your talent’s eye line will still be nice and intimate—and close to direct address—but not 100% dead-on looking down the barrel of the lens. You may find this a nice option to try if you feel direct address seems too confrontational for a particular project or subject.
I’m not a product reviewer. Far from it. I didn’t receive any special incentives from EyeDirect for writing this post. I’ve just found the focusing device to be very handy to have around and thought some of you might find it equally useful. If you do, please leave a comment. Or feel free to ask any questions and I’ll answer them as best I can or we can get Steve McWilliams involved to help out with responses on his site.